The health benefits of martial arts training for all ages
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Many believe the martial arts are only for the very young and very fit — but, as research shows, that's simply not true.
With the proliferation of mixed martial arts (MMA) featuring super-toned competitors as well as the abundance of "Little Dragon" karate programs for small children, many traditional schools have seen a drop in adult attendance. People think they're too old or too out of shape to perform many of the exercises in a typical karate program.
However, for those seeking a good workout, karate offers some excellent fitness benefits for mature practitioners, including improvements in balance, flexibility, endurance and mental health.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science examined 89 men and woman (average age 70) and determined that after five months of martial arts training, participants experienced "significant improvement in motor reactivity, stress tolerance and divided attention," including improved memory. And the combination of aerobic, balance and coordination exercises helped boost cognitive functions.
A secondary study proved further cognitive improvements after 10 months of training. If 70-year-olds are experiencing such major improvements by training in the martial arts, imagine what a 45-year-old can achieve in one year of study.
Not only are Tai Chi Chuan, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu and other martial arts training good for the brain, but they are also good for the body.
Balance is a key component. As people age, their strength, vision and sensory perception decrease, making balancing more difficult. Without good balance, people are more susceptible to falling and injuring themselves. Martial artists incorporate balance in the stances, kicks and other techniques they execute.
Learning how to fall properly is important for students of all ages, and several styles instruct practitioners in the mechanics of minimizing injury when landing on the ground. A 2010 study in the journal BMC Research Notes found that elderly people can benefit from martial arts training by learning the correct way to fall to reduce hip fractures, which are associated with high mortality and morbidity rates.
"Since martial arts techniques reduce hip impact forces and can be learned by older persons, martial arts fall training may prevent hip fractures among persons with osteoporosis," Lead author Brenda Groen explained. "We believe that fall training would be safe for persons with osteoporosis if they wear hip protectors during the training, perform fall exercises on a thick mattress, and avoid forward fall exercises from a standing position."
Stretching is also important in martial arts training. While older adults may not be able to do splits, stretching is necessary to keep muscles flexible and strong. If one doesn't stretch regularly, muscles shorten and tighten and won't fully extend when needed, sometimes causing injury. The more flexible a person is, the easier it is for him or her to perform routine and repetitive tasks without harming areas such as the back, hamstrings and shoulders.
Martial arts practice also incorporates endurance training through aerobic exercise. This helps improve cardiovascular, respiratory and muscular health — crucial elements for people of all ages. Kicking targets, sparring with an opponent and performing basic line drills are just some of the ways students can elevate their heart rate.
In addition to physical betterment, many styles of martial arts focus on improving the mind, body and spirit. The "Do" in arts such as Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do translates to "The Way." This philosophy guides practitioners by improving their mental well-being through both their training and everyday activities.
The key to joining a martial arts program as a mature adult is to rely on modification and to pick a style that suits one's abilities. If an individual has a bad knee or hip, for example, he or she would want to choose an art that focuses less on kicks. One popular style for older students is Tai Chi Chuan, which emphasizes soft, slow and gentle movements.
After choosing a style to study, practitioners should focus less on keeping up with younger students' fitness levels and more on improving their own skills on a class-to-class basis.
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